Stefan Weidner gets candid on Western arrogance

Israel, much like the Americans in Afghanistan and Iraq, refuses to acknowledge that Hamas defeated it on 7 October.

In an interview with Al Majalla, the German Arabist points out the flaws of economic globalisation, which don't necessarily embrace cultural diversity and pluralism nor advance human rights
Mona Eing
In an interview with Al Majalla, the German Arabist points out the flaws of economic globalisation, which don't necessarily embrace cultural diversity and pluralism nor advance human rights

Stefan Weidner gets candid on Western arrogance

German writer Stefan Weidner is known for his research and critical analysis of the West’s approach to the Arab world.

An Arabist and leading contemporary German scholar, he specialises in Islamic poetry and the Arabic language. Weidner studied philosophy at German universities and the University of California, Berkeley, in the United States.

He has translated excerpts of ancient classical Arabic poetry into German, including Tarjuman al-Ashwaq by Sheikh Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi, as well as the works of pioneering contemporary Arab poets, such as Badr Shaker Al-Sayyab, Adonis, and Mahmoud Darwish.

Weidner has also taught the aesthetics of poetry and translation at the Freie Universität Berlin, the University of Bonn, and the University of Münster.

Born in Cologne in 1967, Weidner developed a profound interest in Eastern cultures early on. His passion for the tales of One Thousand and One Nights, Arabic calligraphy, and Islamic arts shaped his academic journey.

He studied the Arabic language at several German institutes and later in Damascus, where he lived and cultivated connections with Syrian intellectuals and writers and with Iraqis living in Germany. He also spent some time in Beirut and Cairo.

As a researcher in aesthetics and architectural arts, he visited Islamic cities in Central Asia, such as Lahore, Isfahan, and Delhi, and Afghanistan.

Stefan Weidner.

He immersed himself in the culture of the Arab Maghreb, particularly in the city of Fez, documenting his experiences in a journal titled Fez: The Seventh Tawaf, which was translated into Arabic in 2019.

Weidner also oversaw the compilation of a book on Oriental literature titled 1001 Books.

After the September 11 attacks on the US and the subsequent international war on terrorism left a significant impact on global politics, German press and research centres began asking Weidner and other Arabists to write about political and sociocultural affairs in the Arab and Islamic worlds.

This led him to shift his focus to reviewing and analysing the political and cultural approaches taken by the West with a more critical mind.

Weidner realised the need to look at the world from a multitude of perspectives and the true, lived realities, modes of thinking and ways of life of different cultures.

From 2001 to 2016, was editor-in-chief of the magazine Fikr wa Fann (Arabic for “Thought/Art”), which was published in German, English, Arabic, and Farsi and aimed to promote acculturation and cultural exchange.

Many of Weidner’s books have been translated into Arabic, including A Discourse Against Islamophobia, The Hidden Questions, Beyond the West: Towards Cosmopolitan Thinking, and Ground Zero: 9/11 and the Birth of the Present.

Al Majalla spoke with Weidner in the German city of Cologne to discuss global affairs and international policies.

Here is our conversation with this leading cultural figure at a time when his own perspective and ideas seem highly relevant in a tumultuous world.

Your book Ground Zero analyses the state of the world after 9/11 and the beginning of the global war on terrorism, which you characterise as “disastrous”.

You argue that such goals are rarely achieved because “the conflict goes on indefinitely,” and you emphasise that this event marked a significant turning point in international politics and altered the world's political landscape.

Can you elaborate on this?

The 9/11 attack was symbolic and shocked both America and the world.

The leading global superpower, which had emerged victorious from the Cold War following the collapse of the Soviet Union, was unable to protect itself from Islamist terrorists who destroyed the Twin Towers—a symbol of American power—in New York, killing 2,700 civilians.

And the wars America waged after 9/11 were also hugely symbolic. No one can forget the pictures of Guantanamo prisoners in orange jumpsuits that became some of the most memorable images of America's war on terror.

One of the 80 al-Qaeda and Taliban detainees (2nd L) wearing an orange jumpsuit can be seen in his cell at Camp X-Ray surrounded by heavy security at the Guantanamo Naval Base, US, 17 January 2002.

These images served a purpose: To humiliate terrorists who attempted to undermine American global power. Similarly, the leaked photos of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib following the Iraq occupation also carried symbolic weight.

Before that, images of American troops destroying a monument for Iraqi tyrant Saddam Hussein in the heart of Baghdad were also meant to send a message.

The message was that it had occupied a city that had served as the global capital of Islam at its apogee during its classical, medieval era. The Baghdad of Harun al-Rashid, Abu Nuwas, and One Thousand and One Nights was once the world's capital, much like New York is today.

But this victory was short-lived after the US's disastrous attempt to establish democracy in Iraq. When the US eventually withdrew, Iran assumed control, and terrorism spread and intensified in the Middle East.

Can you draw any parallels between Hamas's 7 October attack on Israel and its response to the attack and the 9/11 attacks and America's subsequent war on terror?

There are similarities. For example, Hamas chose the date to coincide with the anniversary of the 6 October 1973 war, when Egypt and Syria militarily defeated Israel.

Israel's response sought to downplay this important symbolism. Instead, it positioned itself as fighting terrorism and eradicating it from Gaza. Israel, much like what happened to the Americans in Afghanistan and Iraq, refused to acknowledge this defeat.

In Ground Zero, you mentioned that 9/11 and its aftermath shifted your focus on culture and art to politics. Can you walk us through this shift?

I studied philosophy, comparative literature, the Arabic language, cultural production, and aesthetics. I also collaborated with Iraqi intellectuals and writers and other Arabs in Germany.

Perhaps it was natural for me to be interested in 9/11 and its repercussions. My interest grew after people started asking me about my experience with the Arab world as someone knowledgeable about its culture, poets, and intellectuals.

Of course, 9/11 impacted how Germans and Europeans, in general, viewed Arabs and the Arab world, and there was a greater demand for translation of Arabic literary works.

What was the impact of 9/11 on the perception of the Arab world and literature in Germany?

In the 1990s, following the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Iron Curtain, the Soviet Union, and the Berlin Wall, there was a spirit of openness in the world.

This atmosphere of optimism and satisfaction boosted cultural exchange and the translation of Arabic literature in Europe.

The peace treaty between Israel and Egypt had been finalised, and the Oslo negotiations between the Palestine Liberation Organisation and Israel began during Yitzhak Rabin's time in office.

Israel, much like the Americans in Afghanistan and Iraq, refused to acknowledge that Hamas defeated it on 7 October.

During this period, I often wrote cultural studies on Arabic literature and poetry for German newspapers and submitted my translations of Arabic poetry to German publishing houses.

The economic prosperity of the 1990s facilitated the movement and dissemination of translations and the organisation of mutual cultural, literary, and writing seminars, visits, and residencies between Arab and German writers.

This wave of exchange persisted after 9/11, but its focus, motivations, and trajectory shifted. Its cultural, artistic, and aesthetic aspects waned, while the socio-cultural and political aspects took precedence.

In the aftermath of 9/11, the perception of the Arab world in Germany and Europe became mired in suspicion. 

In Ground Zero, you argue that the war on terrorism is the fourth world war, the Cold War being the third. If we count the overlapping wars in the Middle East, Russia's war on Ukraine, and the war in Gaza, it seems that the world has been in a state of perpetual war for over a century. Do you agree?

From the global South and Middle East perspective, this is certainly the feeling and the case. But in the Western world, 9/11 marked the beginning of a new era of war.

If peace is within its borders, the West considers this world peace. It views turmoil outside its borders as far-off conflicts in underdeveloped countries. 9/11 brought war to the doorstep of America.

A hijacked commercial plane approaches the World Trade Center shortly before crashing into the landmark skyscraper on 11 September 2001 in New York.

In your book, you distinguish between economic globalisation and global pluralism. Please elaborate.

Economic globalisation does not necessarily embrace cultural diversity and pluralism, nor does it advance human rights.

I believe that 9/11 and the war on terrorism marked the beginning of a shift away from globalisation in the general sense.

This can acutely be seen in Europe, where the far right is gaining popularity. Europeans increasingly reject foreigners and immigrants

In Ground Zero, you mentioned that you once spent a decadent evening in Afghanistan with an elite group of people, which made it clear to you just how far the divide between the global north and south is. Tell us more about that night.

I was on a fact-finding mission in Afghanistan and was invited to an extravagant gathering by elite officials who earned obscene salaries in a country plagued by poverty and misery and occupied in the name of the war on terrorism and under the pretext of establishing democracy.

When I left and walked a few steps away, I saw a family huddled in front of their hut on one of Kabul's dark streets. They looked like ghosts in the dim light of an oil lamp as the woman baked bread on a metal sheet to feed them.

As a German and a Westerner, I couldn't help but think about the irony of these two juxtaposed and conflicting scenes: a luxurious party of the global elite and a family living in hunger in a dark, miserable hut.

The gap between the global north and south is widening for many reasons, but mostly because the global system is designed to benefit the West.

Do you think it's fair to place all the blame on the West, especially the United States, for the problems in the Middle East?

Western states should not be blamed entirely, but they did play a big role in destabilising the Middle East. I wrote Ground Zero as a Westerner critiquing the mistakes of the Western world. It was a form of self-criticism intended to change perceptions in my own society.

If I were an Arab, I am sure I would be critical of my own country, society and policies.

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